The Golden Age of aviation started when Lindbergh flew across the Atlantic 1927, and continued to 1939. According to Norm Baker, aviation was on everyone’s mind in the country, with air races, speed records, Lindbergh and Earhart. As child he built model airplanes and looked skyward. His was a family of modest means, yet his parents fully supported his dreams of becoming an aviator.
“As a child I always loved the look of airplanes, that is why I built model airplanes. The look of something detached from the Earth, all alone. I wanted to look at the Earth from the sky”
Norm was 8 years old when the DC-3 first flew in 1935. As a 12-year-old Boy Scout he dreamed of someday flying a DC3. In 1941 the Piper Aviation Company sponsored a national contest to build a J3 Cub model. 13-year-old Norm entered the contest and by mail received the contest rules and specs. Immediately he went down to hobby shop to buy balsa wood, glue etc. Maybe fortunately, Norm didn’t win first prize but won a lower prize: flight lessons. His supportive parents allowed him, at age 13, to get lessons.
In 1941 Piper Aviation paid for lessons for Norm at Speed’s Flying Service at Flushing Airport in Queens [which no longer exists]. Of course, he learned to fly in J3 Cub. A quick study he was eligible for solo with 8 hours of instruction, but Norm had to wait until his 17th birthday in 1945. Norm flew the same Cub all the way to pilots license at 40 hours, age 18 years. Had it not been for the prize money from Piper, he would not have been able to afford lessons.
Norm recounts how Speed Hanzlik may have saved he and his brother’s lives when he flew from Ithaca New York to Flushing airport during school break. “It must have been 1946 after I had my private pilot’s license and we flew down to Flushing where our parents were waiting to take us home for the holiday. Inexperienced pilot that I was I didn’t plan my flight well and arrived after dark in a Piper Cub with no lights and no radio. I managed to find the field and was enormously relieved to see the runway lighted by automobile headlights arranged to be there by Speed.”
Norm later attended Cornell University Ithaca, New York, studying engineering. He joined Cornell Pilot’s Club, 26 students owned one Piper Deluxe, side by side.
Norm was also enamored with the sea and joined the Naval Reserve. In 1951-53 when the Korean War broke out he was assigned to a destroyer- USS Samuel N. Moore DD747. As the ship’s Navigator, Norm had to be a celestial navigator for there was no radar more than 200 miles off shore and GPS hadn’t yet been invented. He used the sun, stars, moon, and planets as navigation aids in mid-ocean.
In 1982 Norm and his wife Mary Ann purchased a 95-foot schooner named the Anne Kristine. The 123-year-old-ship was the oldest continuously used sailing vessel in the world, launched from Norway in 1868. In May of 1991 the Anne Kristine set sail from New York for Tortola. However within thirty-six hours the lives of the crew were in grave danger due to the convergence of two storms Hurricane Grace and the nor’easter that the movie Perfect Storm was written about. Though the ship was lost in the perfect storm, thanks to a dramatic midnight rescue by Coast Guard, there was no loss of life.
In 1992 Norm went back to his first love, aviation, and started flying again. He bought a 1966 Cessna 172, N4676L, which be lovingly named Anne Kristine II. Norm and wife Mary Ann flew a lot together. He attends EAA AirVenture at Oshkosh annually. A non-smoking marathoner, skier, horseback rider, hiker and swimmer, Norm’s bride, Mary Ann, unaccountably passed away in May 2003 from lung cancer.
Norm never forgot his childhood dream of flying the DC3. He contacted Dan Gryder who owns Elite Flight Services. “You meet people from all walks of life in aviation, and meeting Norm Baker was a true gift. Norm called me as a cold call, and informed me that he would be taking my DC-3 class. In speaking with him several times, I suspected that Norm was probably retired, but I never asked his age or why he wanted to fly the DC-3″ Dan says.
In December 2015, Norm flew to Griffin Georgia alone in his Cessna 172, fully IFR and holding a second class medical. “He got out a tow bar and pushed the 172 around like a high school kid would. Turns out Norm was 87 years old, almost 88 and out flying around America.” Gryder recalls.
Norm attributes his good health to staying active, and a special exercise routine that he complete each day, a ritual that consumed 45-minutes per day but kept him in top shape.
Norm flew the DC-3 and Dan was proud to issue him a new pilots license with the coveted DC-3 type rating on it, And then just for fun he opted for an hour left seat in a jet where he experienced touch and go landings, and a few climbs of over 5000 feet per minute…something he had never seen before. Gryder muses, “He boarded his 172 and flew off into the sunset, but I made a friend on this trip that really affected me in a profound way. What a shining example for all the rest of us!”
I asked Norm about inspiring the love of flight in kids. His answer surprised me a bit. I suppose that many times I think we just need to have big events, and get lots of kids in airplanes. Norm paused and thought about it. He said that he has to spend time with the child. “I have to know what the child looks at that thrills him. You have to talk about what the kid wants to hear, what lights them up. They might ask, “Can I do it?” We need to be able to say, “Yes you can!”
Norm Baker was lucky to be born into the Golden Age of Aviation. Perhaps the lesson I take away from meeting Norm is our ability in the aviation community to make our current age a golden age. Yes, we need to have events at our airports, and get loads of kids into our airplanes, but as well, we need to slow down and really talk with our youth. Find out what lights them up about aviation. That way we can all resoundingly say, “Yes you can!”